Empire Earth III Exclusive First Look - Say Hello to a New Empire Earth

Forget everything you know about Empire Earth, because Mad Doc and Sierra are taking the opportunity to reimagine the series with the bold new Empire Earth III.

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When it comes to Empire Earth III, forget what you know about the historically-themed strategy series known as Empire Earth. That's because Sierra and developer Mad Doc both decided that it was past time to go into a different direction. Oh, the basics will remain the same: Empire Earth III is a real-time strategy game that lets you guide a civilization from prehistory to the distant future, but everything else has been rethought and redesigned. We know, because we had a chance to see the game ourselves on a recent visit to Mad Doc's Massachusetts' office.

According to lead designer and project lead Matthew Nordhaus, work on Empire Earth III began right after its predecessor shipped in 2005. However, instead of developing a quick-and-dirty sequel, the designers knew that they had to go in a different direction. Mad Doc basically inherited the franchise with Empire Earth II, so the developer built upon what creator Stainless Steel Studio started. With Empire Earth III, the studio can instill its own vision. And with this reimaging came a complete rewrite of the game and graphics engine. Empire Earth III has "very little, if anything, from the original," Nordhaus says.

Gaze for the first time upon Empire Earth III and notice its bold new art style and new graphics engine.
Gaze for the first time upon Empire Earth III and notice its bold new art style and new graphics engine.

For example, the philosophy of "more is more" that prevailed in the first two Empire Earth games has been tempered quite a bit in this new game. The feedback from Empire Earth II was that it was too overwhelming for a lot of players. The huge scale of Empire Earth has always been one of the series' strengths and weaknesses. Sure, it's great that you guide a Stone Age civilization throughout the many epochs of history, but by Empire Earth II even the designers at Mad Doc admitted that it was getting hard to tell all the different factions apart, or what the key difference between, say, epoch 12 and epoch 13 really was. On top of that, there were dozens of different technologies that you had to worry about. Many of the gameplay differences were merely cosmetic or minor. That's not going to be the case with Empire Earth III. There will be fewer, but more distinct, epochs, as well as a streamlined technology tree of different improvements to research.

The first thing that you'll notice about Empire Earth III is its sharp visual design. Complaints that players have made about the previous Empire Earths was that combat was a muddled mess with similar-looking units filling the screen; there wasn't much personality to it. In contrast, the units in Empire Earth III look oversized and exaggerated, and you instantly know what each one is capable of. The best way to describe the look of the game is to imagine a blend between Warcraft and Age of Empires. These new units will be categorized into three different region sets: Western, Far Eastern, and Middle Eastern. That doesn't mean there are just three factions in the game, but each faction will belong to one of the three regions.

Each region not only has its own distinct look and feel, but there are considerable gameplay differences between each one. The Western region has fewer but more-expensive units, reflecting its high-tech advantages. The Far Eastern region relies more on masses of cheaper units. And the Middle Eastern region supports more mobile units, such as cavalry and structures that can move. When the timeline shifts to the future late in the game, the differences between the regions become even starker. In the first two Empire Earth games, you could research a future in which mechs, giant mechanized war machines, ruled. In Empire Earth III, each region has a different type of end unit. For instance, we know that the Western region has the mech units, while the Far Eastern region has genetically engineered monsters. That should make late game combat something to see.

World domination can let you try to conquer the globe, and in this case, it's an actual 3D globe.
World domination can let you try to conquer the globe, and in this case, it's an actual 3D globe.

The battles that you'll take these units to are going to be a lot more interesting than those in the earlier games. Empire Earth III will introduce a new, open-ended world domination mode that will let you conquer a virtual Earth or a randomly generated planet. Then there will be the expected skirmish and multiplayer modes. However, world domination is going to be the main mode in Empire Earth III. As its name suggests, your goal will be to take over the planet, and in this case the game will feature a 3D globe of the earth that you can zoom in and plot your moves on. This part of the game is turn based, and you'll be able to do a lot more than simply order armies to move into adjacent territories. Empire Earth III will feature a fairly detailed espionage component that will let you send spies into enemy territory to foment revolts and uprisings. The diplomacy system has also been overhauled. Diplomacy has been distilled to key ideas, such as declaring war or forming an alliance, which makes it a lot easier to understand than Empire Earth II's convoluted diplomacy, which swamped you with confusing options.

A Tribe Called Quest

One of the new ideas in Empire Earth III is a quest system in battle. These are sort of like missions, and they make battles much more involved than simply building up a base and an army and wiping opponents off the map. There will be dozens of different quests when the game ships, but the example that Mad Doc gave was a mission to rescue the princess of a neutral tribe from the clutches of its enemies. Do so, and that tribe will ally with you--not just in that mission, but, if you're playing the campaign game, for the duration of the campaign as well. However, these quests can be optional too, so you don't have to help the tribe, and in fact you can conquer it if you want. Each route has its pros and cons, but the addition of quests should add some welcome variety to the standard RTS gameplay.

The scope of the game still covers the Stone Age to the Space Age and even beyond.
The scope of the game still covers the Stone Age to the Space Age and even beyond.

Empire Earth III's computer opponents should put up a pretty good fight, too. Mad Doc is a company that prides itself in its artificial intelligence (founder and CEO Ian Davis has a doctorate in robotics), and what we heard about Empire Earth III has us excited. We were told that the AI plays by the same rules as the human player, meaning it doesn't cheat. At harder difficulty levels, the computer simply gets more time to think rather than any production or combat bonuses. On top of that, we can expect a variety of AI personalities and strategies in the game, as well as the AI making effective use of espionage and its other options in the world domination game.

The multiplayer element of Empire Earth III also sounds promising. There will be the typical multiplayer skirmish, which allows you to play one or more players online, but the more ambitious plans include a persistent multiplayer world domination campaign, which would play sort of like a tournament. Players will take turns making their moves on the world map, and when two players collide, the game will schedule a real-time strategy battle for them to play. Once the results are in, the game updates the world map and the game continues. This will obviously require a long-term commitment to play, so Mad Doc has a persistent multiplayer server in mind, similar to Civilization IV's pitboss server. One player can keep the server running 24/7, and other players will be able to log in when they have a moment, make their moves, and then log out. Meanwhile, the tug-of-war multiplayer mode introduced in Empire Earth II is no more, so it looks as though skirmish and world domination will be the two key multiplayer modes.

Finally, if you couldn't get past the dated presentation of the earlier Empire Earth games, the good news is that Empire Earth III looks a lot prettier and a lot more modern. As we noted previously, the graphics engine has basically been rewritten, and the game now supports many of the shader, lighting, shadowing, and postprocessing effects that modern gamers have become accustomed to. The game has a cinematic physics system, so buildings can be shredded apart by explosions and weapons fire. Even better is that the performance of the game has been improved thanks to optimization. The development team has been able to see 500 units onscreen at once, which is impressive for any RTS. Empire Earth III will be a DirectX 9 game, which makes sense considering DirectX 10 is barely out and hardly any video cards support it.

Empire Earth is a successful franchise, but Mad Doc hopes the third time is really the charm.
Empire Earth is a successful franchise, but Mad Doc hopes the third time is really the charm.

Put it all together and Empire Earth III looks like a whole new game, and there are so many changes and new features that it's a bit surprising that Sierra and Mad Doc are sticking with the Empire Earth brand. However, the Empire Earth name does have a fair amount of clout, and Sierra and Mad Doc clearly want this to be a fresh new direction for the franchise. The game has been quietly in development for the past 18 months, and Mad Doc is fairly well along in the development cycle. The plan right now is to ship Empire Earth III sometime in the second half of the year.

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